File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/marxism-international.9710, message 161


Date: Thu, 9 Oct 1997 13:23:51 -0400
Subject: Re: M-I: brenner pt. 3


James Farmelant:

Some good questions, and I wish I had time to answer them adequately.
In this posting I'll just skim the surface. I'll also assume that's you've
now read all 3 parts of Brenner (purely to allow allusions instead of
dreary long arguments). For these issues, also, I'd recommend that you read
my paper "Colonialism and the rise of capitalism," S&S 1989. In the
beginning part of that paper there is a brief discussion of the problem of
Eurocentrism in the Marxist literature on the "transition" from feudalism
to capitalism. In my book *The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical
Diffusionism and Eurocentric History* (Guilford 1993), I go deeply into the
question of Eurocentrism, but I don't criticize Marxists. In another book,
*Fourteen ninety-Two: The Debate on Colonialism, Eurocentrism, and History*
(Africa World Press 1992) I cover the same stuff but you might enjoy
commentaries on my position by AG Frank and S. Amin. I'm writing a book now
on Eurocentric Marxism
In the early '70s I began seriously to ponder the fact that essentially all
of the theorizing by Marxists and non-Marxists about social/cultural
evolution was developed from historical facts and beliefs about Europe
(including the "Bible Lands"). Marx and Engels had done so, of course, but
they couldn't possibly have done otherwise in the universe of discourse
which they inhabited. Among Marxists in 2nd-Intl times, only Lenin (I
think) really considered seriously the role of non-Europe in social
evolution -- but for the present and future, not the past. Rosa didn't, nor
did Bauer in spite of his ethnological mumbojumbo. Only cultural
anthropology and cultural geography really held to an *agenda* that
required them to be strictly comparative -- cover all places and times --
in their theorizing about cultural evolution. Before the end of WW2,
however, their theorizing remained heavily Eurocentric. The point is that
we had a confluence of two forces: lack of knowledge about non-European
history and lack of interest in searchimng for that knowledge (because of
the Eurocentric canon in scholarship).

When Dobb published his book on the "transition" in 1946, and in the debate
on the subject in S&S, the problem reamined. I cannot fault *any* of the
participants for theorizing about history as though all of it took place in
the European tunnel of time. Very little evidence had as yet come in from
non-Euriope. 

But in the 1960s and 1970s a flood of new evidence came in on non-European
history. I wove some of these data into a paper in 1976 ("Where Was
Capitalism Born?" Antipode*) arguing (very briefly, to be sure) that every
proposition which tried to explain the "transition" in terms of some
supposed intra-European fact or quality was DISPROVEN by comparative
analysis. Towns? Serfdom? Manors? Cash tenancy? Manufactures? Technology?
Rationality? Nothing unique to Europe, alone or in combinations.

Now the story stops here. I expanded the argument in the Colonizer's Model
to disprove, thoroughly, truly every current theory about Europe's actual
or potential superiority in 1500. Given, then, that there would be no
internal reason to predict that European civilization would later "rise," I
argued that the accumulation of capital from colonialism in the Amereicas
explained Europe's initial selective "rise" and the bourgy revos.

I say the story stops here because I no longer need to take seriously the
incredibly *uninformed* arguments about the origins of capitalism which are
floated by people like Brenner. Brenner has available to him the new
literature about the non-European middle ages but he chooses to ignore it
completely. (See my paper.) And (again see my paper) the data from
non-Europe, and even some of the newer data on medieval urope, just
disprove his m,ajor arguments. Now we get into even smellier matters. Why,
as a trained historian, does he continue this pure "tunnel history?"
The answer is made clear in his 1977 NLR paper: to destory the positions of
those (like Sweezy, Frank, and Wallerstein) who emphasize the historic
importance of imperialism and the streuggle against it. Brenner tags this
"Neo-Smithianism," not Marxism," simply a wild curse upon "Thirdworldists."
But notice tbat the cursewords (Neo-Smithianism, Thirdworldism, etc.) have
stuck -- and now are widely used. Why? I answer this in my paper and book: 
in the post-Saigon period part of the Left was out to reclaim the ground
thast had been captured by "Thirdworldy" and anti-imperialist ideology and
politics during the prior, decolonization era, and to squelch the
activisrt, revolutionasry mood, particularly among students and in the New
Left. I do not impute motive: these folks were not racists. This was a
politicasl assault, and it was successful to a degree. 
And now we come to the most disturbing, discouraging, part of the whole
business. From the mid-80s on, we see continuos debates among (mainly)
theoretical-minded Marxist economists about historical issues ranging from
the nature of feudalism, the "transition," and the rise of capitalism, to
overall theories concer ning social evolution since the dawn of class
society. I haven't read all of it, and granted I find Analytical Marxism
too weird to read very seriously. But I have read GA Cohen and most of the
stuff in S&S. Now I must capitalize: IN THIS LITERATURE, taken as a whole,
THERE IS ALMOST NO CONCERN WITH, INTEREST IN, AND SUSPICION OF THE
RELEVANCE OF, HISTORICAL FACTS FROM THE NON-eUROPEAN WORLD. What we get in
the typical paper is the following sort of thing. "Why, hmmm, did the slave
mode of production as a stage (sic) in social evolution give way to the
feudal MOP? Was it the forces of production? The relations of production?"
These folks do not know the facts about slavery in the rest of the ancioent
world and non-slavery in the Mediterranean -- facts which ANY causal
analysis must take into account if it is to avoid the classic pitfall of
correlation without causation.  Another example: "What are the essential
attributes of the feudal MOP that will lead it to crumble/transit/rise to
capitalism?" -- not noticing that feudalism was widespread in the world and
enough cases exist so that one can get an idea whether a given asttribute
of European feudalism was of any causal historical significance in
explaining the decline of the FMP and the origins of the CMP.. Etcetera.

This is discouraging because these people are scholars. Some of them, like
Dave Laibman, I admire greatly. How can they continue to weave theories out
of false empirical data about the European past and ridiculous, already
disproven, propositions about the non-European past?

Is it theoreticism? The case night be made that you can deal with
theoretical issues without discussing data. For Marxist historians this is
bullshit. They talk about the theoretical entity "feudalism" because they-
want to answeer empirical questions about why society REALLY evolves and
why we got stuck with capitalism. So, they have to answer this charge: how
can you waaste your time buiklding theoretical models about the decay, the
transition, the rise, etc., out of empirical data that are known to be
false? How can you continue in what you see as a steady flow since Marx of
theorizing about the origins and rise of capitalism when in fact the older
theorists did not know the relevant facts and you should know them? 

Statede differently: the theorizing that is taking plazce is NOT at a high
level of abstraction thus needing no supporting data. This theorizing
ASSUMES A BODY OF EMPIRICAL DATA AS BEING AN ACCEPTABLE BASE UPON WBNHICH
TOI DEVELOP HIGH LEVEL THEORY about modes of production, class, "forces of
production." etc., BUT THE DATA ARE PASRTLY FALSE AND HOPELESSLY
INCOMPLETE. A theoretical physicist, a cognitive psychologist, etc. would
never be allowed to theorize in this way. The stuff wouldn't get published.

There is a parallel historical process: how did Brenner's overall argument
co me to be accepted so widely by Marxists? Because, as I say in my Brenner
paper, this argument was politically very helpful to part of the left (and
even more so to mainstream economic history and economic development
theory): it closed a gap in Eurocentric Marcxism by proving, at long last,
that the wider world was  irrelevant and (according to Brennjer (NLR '77)
still is. It further developed tghe Eurocentric-diffusinoist doctrine that
all of hisrtorey begins in the European world (and mind) and then, later,
diffuses out to the ignorant savages.

I'll stop here. In a later posting, the concluding part of this screed,
I'll do a hatchet job on this fellow Milonakis (his papers in S&S 1993-4
and 1997) who makes all the errors referred to above. A tidbit: in 47 pages
of text, the only places mentioned by Milonakis are: Western Europe (6
mentions), Eaastern Europe (5), and the Roman Empire (1).

In struggle

Jim Blaut  


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